By Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen
LONG BRANCH – Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas, the husband-and-wife team that founded the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch 20 years ago, were driving along Second Avenue in the city in April 2015 when she suddenly yelled ‘Stop!’ and he slammed on the brakes.
“I’m thinking I might have hit a squirrel,” he said.
Gabor Barabas looked over at his wife and she was looking out the window at a For Sale sign on the fence surrounding the closed West End School.
“Suzie turned around and looked at me and said, ‘This is our moment. How can we purchase this?’ ”
After placing the winning bid, they closed in May 2016 on the building they now are calling West End Arts at Sairs and West End avenues.
When they launched New Jersey Rep in 1997, Gabor Barabas had been a pediatric neurologist for children and young adults for 30 years. SuzAnne Barabas was an actress-turned-director.
When she decided to start a theater company he joined her to build a nonprofit, professional theater on lower Broadway in Long Branch, a blighted area with little foot traffic, no restaurants, that was really dark at night. People thought they were crazy.
In addition, New Jersey Rep’s mission was to develop and produce new plays by mostly unknown playwrights.
No Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. No Neil Simon comedies. No audience, right?
Twenty years later the 67-seat theater averages six to eight productions a year. It has 850 subscribers. It’s annual budget is about $800,000. Donors include the Geraldine R. Dodge and the Shubert foundations, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, plus Joan and Robert Rechnitz, another married couple who founded the Two River Theater in Red Bank in 1994.
That’s one reason why Robert Goodman, assistant director of the Office of Community and Economic Development for Long Branch, believes the Barabas’ have another hit on their hands with West End Arts in the famously funky section of town.
“They are known for developing a successful business on Broadway, and now they are taking that vision and broadening it,” Goodman explained. “They did not just go up one rung on the ladder, they went up five rungs.”
The 28,000 square-foot former West End School sits on 2.5 acres less than three blocks from the Atlantic Ocean. It’s being reconfigured to include a 165-seat proscenium theater, a 100-seat black box theater and a rehearsal space for upcoming NJ Repertory shows that will continue to be produced at the Broadway-based theater.
SuzAnne Barabas is the artistic director and Gabor Barabas is the executive producer at both facilities.
“We want to be a catalyst for artists, galleries, and other arts organizations,” Gabor Barabas said during a recent walk-through of the elementary school built in stages beginning in the 1940s.
“We will have an art gallery, a new arts cinema, rooftop cafe, and residences for out-of town-actors, and 125 parking spaces on site,” Barabas said. “The plan is to be a comprehensive center for the performing arts, visual arts, poetry, dance and music.”
Three anonymous donors paid the $2.25 million purchase price. A capital campaign to renovate and improve the property will be launched in phases. Meanwhile Barabas is meeting with potential donors and people interested in the project he estimates will cost between $25-$30 million.
Not wasting any time, classes for adults, including acting, playwriting and visual arts were offered this spring. Tickets now are on sale now for a coming-out benefit event Oct. 1-8 with the theme “All About Eve.” More than 400 short plays were submitted and 28 were selected. A gallery show is included.
It was up to the artists to interpret what the theme meant.
“For many of the submissions you have to kind of connect the dots to get the meaning, which is what we wanted,” Barabas said.
Each day four plays will be performed simultaneously in four separate micro theaters (former classrooms). The audience, divided into four groups, will move from room to room to view the plays.
A music night and poetry night are planned at $15 each. Theater sessions are $50 each and include refreshments, and to attend all the events costs $300. For more information, visit http://www.njrep.org or call 732-229-3166.
“The core idea is that this is not just a performance arts center, it’s much more expansive in its concept with educational programs and visual arts,” Barabas said. “It’s a work in progress.
“As we begin to gather steam and raise funds, we’re going to have to decide how we’re going to phase it in,” he explained. “Of course, the flagship of this project is to get that first theater up and running.”
“A lot of people didn’t think Gabe could do what he did on Broadway, but he was able to leverage relations and he has a excellent board,” said Goodman, adding Community and Economic Development supports businesses with promotions and government grants.
Barabas is very likable and is an established member of the business community, Goodman said. People want to work with a successful business, especially one that will provide restaurants, bars and shops with more customers.
Business partners Michael Bienz and Sam Nativo have owned Mix Lounge and Food Bar, 17 Brighton Ave., for 17 years. They were ecstatic the Barabas’ bought the school. They’ve also noticed an uptick in the sale of local properties, vacancy signs taken down and empty lots being developed.
“We held a fundraiser for Gabe at our restaurant so the business people, theater people, and folks with deep pockets could meet,” Bienz said. “The opening of the West End Arts center will mark the ‘before’ and ‘after’ moment on the timeline. This type of facility will be huge, a regional attraction.”
Barabas recognizes this is a pivotable time and caution is needed to control growth. At an age when most people are retiring, this West Long Branch couple, that will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next February, are taking on a major project. So why do it?
“It’s been the dream to have a real impact on the community,” he explained. “So the way I view it, we’ve been given this in trust and the trust is we’re going to create something to serve generations to come and enrich the community.
“Also, it has to do with faith in the importance of having an arena where you can truly explore the human condition, give people the opportunity to express themselves creatively,” he said. “You can’t even envision what will happen. All you can do is create the environment where anything is possible.”
So, are Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas crazy?
“Crazy is a very relative term,” Gabor Barabas said with a smile. “I think we had the idea all along that if we survived, the time may come when we will want to spread our wings a bit more.”
This article was first published in the July 6-13, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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